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From Mickey To Mowgli: Who Was The Real Walt Disney?

The Walt Disney Company gave PBS’s American Experience the keys to the Magic Kingdom and promised not to interfere. Here’s what happened.

When PBS’s American Experience set out to document Walt Disney’s life three years ago, it anticipated a fool’s errand.

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“I really thought it was going to be an impossible task, because it’s no secret that the company Walt created is very controlling of its brand,” says AE executive producer Mark Samels. “For Disney, there was the expectation of editorial input. I said, ‘Well, it’s gonna be very simple: you’re going to get to see the show when the American public does.’ And I fully expected it would be over at that point.”

Then a miracle happened: Disney opened the archives.

The result is the four-hour documentary, Walt Disney, airing over two nights, September 14 and 15, on PBS. The footage depicts a complex man, both beloved and feared, in his own struggles: wanting mass acceptance while pushing artistic boundaries, trying to control a burgeoning empire, driving his staff while wanting a workplace family.

“The real challenge to this project was that Walt Disney is so mythic, and people think they know him, but in reality don’t,” says Walt Disney’s Emmy Award-winning producer/director Sarah Colt. “I relied greatly on the scholarship that came before—Neil Gabler’s biography and other books, and archival research—and tried to understand him as a human being with many layers of complexity. Hopefully, once you’ve watched four hours, you really see him as a real person.

Sarah ColtPhoto: Lisa Abitbol

The Terrifying Visionary

“One of the things the film gets right is that Walt Disney does control everything”—a creative force who goes beyond a studio head to someone actually responsible for these animations and other films, says Gabler, who wrote the award-winning bestseller, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

“He’s an instrumentalist, just like Steve Jobs,” he says. “So long as you are instrumental to what he wants, things are fine. When you are no longer able to give him what he wants, there’s no sentimentality. ‘Dead wood. Get rid of him. I only want people who can fulfill my vision.’ He was a terrifying father (figure) at work. The Walt Disney Studio operated like a cult, and Walt was the head of the cult, and everybody [there] drank the Kool Aid, at least in the ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was a bit different, though they were still terrified of him.”

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Those who toed the line were regarded an extended—and loyal—family. “When his animators went on strike in the early 1940s, it was a betrayal on a level that was life changing,” says Colt. “So for him, this family then turns on itself.”

Academy Award-winning composer Richard Sherman—who, with his brother Robert, crafted songs for Mary Poppins, among others—found a mellower Disney when they began working for him in 1960.

Richard SermanPhoto: Rahoul Ghose, courtesy of PBS

“That terrifying leader in the film was the early Walt fighting to get to the top. But he was on the top in 1960,” he says. “He had mastered all the animation problems, he had created Disneyland against everybody’s better judgment. Here, he didn’t have to fight. He treated us like we were his boys. We got him in the golden years.

“You must remember that his love for people was very real,” adds Sherman. “He really truly loved kids, he loved animals. Yes, he was driven. He was a man with fire, who had to achieve and climb mountains, and was always looking for a new mountain to climb. With all that, he still was a great father to his kids, wonderful husband, and great soul. But the main thing was he was driven by doing good things.”

The price of empire

In the 1950s, Walt Disney studios became too corporatized for Disney’s entrepreneurial and artistic nature. So he left to form WED, which stood for Walter Elias Disney, the precursor to what is now Disney Imagineering. There, he created the now iconic attractions: Small World, Carousel of Progress, Tiki Room, audio-animatronics.

“The essence that Sarah draws out in the film is the price of empire,” says Samels. “He puts down his brush. He is now in charge of something. He doesn’t have the personal touch with anymore.”

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Adds Gabler, “The company got so big that Walt Disney didn’t want to be part of it anymore. It existed to make these animations, and then reaches a point where the animations existed to keep the company running. That’s when Walt leaves, makes Disneyland, and forms WED. It’s like the early days. It’s fun again. Like when he was doing Mickey Mouse, because he doesn’t want to be a part of a corporate structure.”

“What made Disneyland different was bringing a narrative to an entertainment carnival,” says animator/producer Don Hahn, who produced The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. “So, when you go to that hub in front of the castle and turn left into Adventureland, it’s the equivalent of a cross dissolve. You go over water, a bridge, through some jungle, and there’s the Tiki Room, and you are in this other place. So he had a sense of narrative even in that live entertainment venue.”

The artist vs the brand

Disney’s battles extended beyond control and mechanics. There was the desire to be taken seriously as an artist by a public that pegged him as folk hero.

Walt Disney’s most personal films—Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia—came out during 1937 to 1942 and were brave artistic choices, but not all hits. As time passed and the films needed to support other initiatives, such trailblazing became increasingly difficult. Fantasia, in particular was a cultural turning point, because it so countered his public image as a naïve folk artist.

“They were trying to show that animation was possible for doing anything; that it wasn’t solely a children’s medium,” says Hahn. “And to an odd degree, we fight that still today. Animation can really tell a number of stories.”

“Walt was very often always seen as a regular guy producing entertainment for the masses, and Fantasia is almost too much,” says University of Virginia art historian Carmenita Higginbotham. “Critics saw him as a poser, someone who was trying to bring fine art or culture to the masses, and it couldn’t be done. He should stay with what he knows. So it was a critical turning point.”

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Adds Gabler: “That was the beginning of the criticism of Walt Disney that lasts even to this day. When you look at some of his correspondence, he says in a note to Julie Andrews, ‘They’ll never give me an Oscar for Mary Poppins.’ The film also depicts the sense that Walt is always fighting. You think of him as being warm and cuddly and the center of America, but he is always fighting.”

In the early 60s, Disney put his personal stamp on Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but would die in 1966, between their releases. “That was the old Walt Disney coming back again,” says Sherman. “He came back in those years, and then he left us.”

Adds Colt: “My sense of Walt Disney was that he never coasted and was driven until the day he died. In fact, on his deathbed, he was looking up at the ceiling and telling [his brother] Roy about his plans for Epcot at Disney World.”

The controversy

Missing from the documentary is the stuff of urban legend—Disney being cryogenically held—as well as rumors of his being an anti-Semite and racist.

“There’s no evidence to show that Disney had Nazi [sympathies],” says Colt. “That is not based on any truth, so there’s no reason to bring it up in the film. I certainly asked about Disney’s anti-Semitism and tried to find any evidence, and again, there wasn’t evidence. It wasn’t relevant to this story of who Walt Disney was and what he did, and so that’s not part of the film.”

“I wrote a book called An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, so if anybody is going to be sensitive to whether Walt Disney was anti-Semitic, it would be somebody like me,” says Gabler. “I’m also one of the few people who read every single piece of the Walt Disney papers, and saw no evidence, other than casual anti-Semitism that virtually every gentile of that time would have had. There were many reasons why he was considered an anti-Semite, charges primarily made by his enemies. I don’t think Walt was a racist, but I do think he saw his theme park and films as being primarily intended for the majority white audience.”

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“He was a man of his time,” says Higginbotham. “He’s thinking about the broadest audience possible, and what he understands to be ideal families and faces, and what he is exposed to. It’s just a function of what it is.”

The legacy

How do you keep the vision alive when the visionary is gone? Disney’s absence left his company’s future animators navigating the line between his aesthetics and spirit, while keeping up with changing social mores.

“I was at the studio in 1976, and it was like a “What would Walt do?” studio,” says Hahn. “You really felt him in the hallways, and there was a generation of people there who felt we had to keep that legacy going. But it ran the danger of becoming a museum.”

“It wasn’t until we finally said, ‘You know, the last guy who would ask “What would Walt do?” would be Walt Disney. So let’s start saying “What would we do? What should we express as artists living and breathing in this age?’” he adds. “It was Disney’s risk taking and reinventing himself that we started to capture. That’s when we started making The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.

“That goes back to you being yourself and an artist in your own era,” Hahn continues. “Walt Disney really captured his era and we can only try to do the same.”


For a look at how Disney become the first animation studio to hold life-drawing classes, check out this article.

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

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